Kolkata: Following its worst electoral performance in West Bengal in 32 years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, is worried that it may not be able to reverse the anti-incumbency wave that cost it 20 Lok Sabha seats in the Lok Sabha polls before the assembly election in 2011.
The party is contemplating a change in leadership at the state level with an eye on the assembly election, according to Nirupam Sen, West Bengal’s commerce and industries minister and the No. 2 in the state cabinet.
“It’s too early to predict (the outcome of the 2011 assembly election), but yes, it is going to be a tough job—not an easy task at all,” Sen said in an interview. “Because we have been in power for so long, facing this kind of an anti-incumbency wave is very difficult, but we have to address it.”
Who’s to blame? Bengal ministerand CPM politburo member Nirupam Sen. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“The results of the general election show that a section of the people wants the Left Front to go…,” said Sen, who is also a member of the CPM’s politburo—the party’s highest decision-making body.
“We will try to overcome the problems, but it is really a tough job because in two years, how much tangible change can we bring about? And it’s going to be tougher because of the economic downturn—my personal view is things are going to get worse and more people are likely going to lose jobs this year.”
Asked if the CPM was weighing options on changing its leadership at the state level, Sen said, “Some changes are bound to happen. We are discussing among ourselves.”
In the general election, the CPM’s vote share in the state fell 5.5% from what it was in 2004 to 33%. The party and its allies—the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Communist Party of India, or CPI—together got 43.3% of the vote, 7.5% less than in 2004, and won only 15 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state; in 2004, they had secured 35.
The key gainer was the Trinamool Congress—the state’s main opposition party led by Mamata Banerjee—which, in alliance with the Congress, won 25 seats, with the Trinamool Congress winning 19 and the Congress, six. An independent candidate backed by the Trinamool Congress also won, taking the opposition’s tally in the state to 26.
Details of the polling show that the CPM and its allies received fewer votes than the Congress-Trinamool Congress combine in 193 of the 294 assembly segments in the state; in the 2006 state election, they had secured 235 assembly seats.
Why did the CPM and its allies perform so poorly in the general election?
It was undoubtedly a major setback for our party, not only in West Bengal but the country as a whole. In my view, it was a combination of factors that worked against us in West Bengal. On the one hand, there was an issue with our position in national politics…people did not think that the alternative that we had suggested was viable, and on the other, there were certain local issues that influenced voters in West Bengal. After a preliminary analysis, our view is that some of the initiatives taken by the state government in the last two-and-a-half years have not been received well by the people.
If you look at the larger economy, you’d see that 2001 onwards, India’s economy has been growing faster than before, and because of this economic boom, people started looking to invest in West Bengal. Quite naturally, the state government took steps to tap this opportunity, but I don’t think you should blame our poll debacle only on our drive for industrialization. A number of other things worked against us and some of them were not even related to industrialization.
For instance, Nandigram… We had proposed to set up an industrial hub there—it was just a proposal, we hadn’t started acquiring land there—but when locals resisted, the state government promptly decided to abandon the proposal. Yet, the problem couldn’t be resolved because political parties started exploiting the tension there.
Later, because of Nandigram, tension escalated in Singur as well—I don’t think the situation in Singur would have gone out of hand if Nandigram hadn’t happened.
But because of our drive for industrialization, the scenario in West Bengal has changed a lot—you can’t miss that if you went to Kharagpur (in West Midnapore district), or Haldia (in East Midnapore district) where a lot of investment has come, or around Kolkata where a lot of information technology companies have set up offices.
We have made substantial progress—you shouldn’t overlook that—and there are many instances of people having voluntarily supported our initiatives. Lately though, we have been facing problems, and investments in West Bengal have slowed. One reason for that is, of course, political resistance…but I think the economic slowdown has also impacted us in a big way.
In my view, it wasn’t a verdict against industrialization alone. A number of other things played in the mind of voters in West Bengal, such as Nandigram—people did not like the way the Nandigram crisis was handled by the state government...
These and other factors resulted in a wave of so-called anti-incumbency—it is natural because we have been in power for over 30 years, and that has its own problems, but until the past couple of years, we have been able to cope with it.
At the same time, it is important to remember that opposition parties in the state have always been quite powerful, and voters in this state are sharply polarized. A small swing, say 6-7% of votes, can make a big difference in West Bengal.
In this election, you’d see that the difference between the vote share of the Left Front and the Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance is very small, but at the same time, we must admit that compared with 2004, the Left Front’s vote share has declined sharply.
How important was the issue of land acquisition?
It is undeniable that the debate over land acquisition has influenced voters, particularly peasants. Because they aren’t convinced that industrialization could make a significant difference to their lives, they are concerned that they might get uprooted if they lost their land.
But is it only the opposition’s campaign that resulted in peasants not being convinced about the benefits of industrialization? No. It is incorrect to assume that people get swayed by campaigns alone. People always examine what they are told in the light of their own experience. And the experience is the economic growth in the country hasn’t made any significant difference to the common man.
The Left Front has been telling people that neo-liberal economic policies do not lead to inclusive growth—its basic premise is that man is a selfish being—and people have experienced what we have been saying repeatedly. Though, in our country, GDP (gross domestic product) has been growing at 8-9% every year, employment in the organized sector hasn’t really grown and labour-intensive industries are increasingly failing to cope with competition.
This has influenced people’s thinking, and the Trinamool Congress has exploited it. If you have read their manifesto, you would know that they have tried to present themselves as the true opponents of neo-liberal economic policies, which the Left Front has been opposing so far.
That they are not so is something that people will realize with time, but that’s a different matter… The Trinamool Congress in this election has tried to capture voters who have ideologically supported our views.
How significant was the Nandigram issue?
I wish Nandigram didn’t happen…people did not expect such things from us—a Left Front government. People’s expectation from us is different—people expect more from us than other political parties, and so are hurt more when we fail to live up to their expectations. I think it is right…we are different, and people are right in measuring us by a different yardstick than other political parties. So, if people aren’t happy with us, we should realize that there’s a problem with us, not them...
Also, we have a robust organization, and people judge the whole party by people at the grass-roots level. If our party’s representative in your locality behaves with you in a certain manner, you are surely going to form a view about the whole party based on how he behaves with you. What he is saying or doing may not be something that the state government supports, but opposition parties have used that to their advantage. This is another thing that has worked against us.
So is your party being seen as having deserted its rural supporters?
The support base that we had built in rural areas was (the) result of a class struggle that centred on (ownership of) land and decentralization of power. Our first step was to attack people who owned large tracts of land and controlled the rural society—in rural areas, power always comes from ownership of land. And our second step was to socially empower the poor.
These steps put the Left Front on a strong footing in West Bengal. If you consider the growth rate of agriculture in West Bengal, you’d see it was highest in the 1980s. It declined a bit in the 1990s. It contracted further in the last 10 years. But compared with the national average, West Bengal is still better off.
I think the biggest sufferer of liberalization is agriculture. From 1991 onwards, agriculture has been neglected—subsidies have been withdrawn and farmers aren’t getting the support that they used to get. And the crisis has led farmers to kill themselves and explains why the Central government had to launch such a huge debt-waiver scheme.
The impact of this crisis on farmers in West Bengal was much worse than, say, farmers of Punjab or Haryana because farmers in our state did not have the economic strength to cope with it. In West Bengal, there’s huge pressure on land—on the one hand, landholding here is small and is getting more fragmented, and on the other, many more people are dependent on agriculture in West Bengal than in other states.
This is what led us to intervene. The aim was to reduce the pressure on land—create alternative employment, which could absorb the surplus manpower in agriculture. We have been noticing that in rural areas, income from sources other than agriculture has been increasing, but people aren’t earning enough from non-farm sources to sustain their families. So, agriculture continues to supplement the income of even those who are engaged in non-farm activities.
In this scenario, industrialization is an essential step, but not the only remedy. Besides industrialization, we have been doing a number of other things such as looking for ways to maximize return from agricultural products through better marketing, preservation and processing. We have been trying to understand how agricultural products could be marketed better in today’s world, how processing could reduce wastage and so on. We have also created self-help groups for employment of women and there are about 9.5 lakh self-help groups in the state.
The struggle over control of land has ended, and it’s time for people to move on, but an alternative is not ready yet. So, people are apprehensive…and this disappointment has been politically exploited by the opposition.
We could not avoid this situation…the steps that we have taken are going to pay off in the long run. Because we were in power, we had to take these steps—the onus was ours to find a solution—but if you are in opposition, you need not care about these problems. And our search for a solution has led to conflicts…conflicts not with opposition parties alone, but also within the Left Front—with our allies.
It is, however, undeniable that we still don’t have a clear understanding of what we should be doing to address the problem, how best people dependent on agriculture could switch to a more sustainable source of income...
That apart, we also suffered because of communication gaps…it seems we have not been able to connect with people at the grass-roots level and explain to them the rationale of our efforts, what we were thinking. We communicate through our party, and in a sense, it’s a failure of our party that we couldn’t convince people about our objectives.